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Research Experiences In China Inspire Students

“This was a dream opportunity, to do research and live in a place like China,” said Gayle Willis, a senior civil engineering major at Georgia Tech who participated in Clarkson University’s summer research program in China.

In the past two summers, Clarkson University civil and environmental engineering professors Hung Tao Shen and Hayley Shen have taken more than 30 undergraduates to China for research experiences in science and engineering. Clarkson’s is the only such program in the East Asia and Pacific Region. Students spend 10 weeks in China at a university working on a research project under the guidance of Chinese faculty mentors.

The program is sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) with the long-term goal of integrating the U.S. workforce into the global scientific and engineering community. Whether one works in research or industry, international collaboration is now a reality. NSF wants to expose students to this broader world – and impact them positively – early in their careers.

The international research experience has many benefits, according to Hung Tao Shen: “The students not only learn about doing advanced research in China and gain knowledge about Chinese culture, they also learn about working with students from other U.S. universities.”

More than 90 students applied this past spring; only 15 were accepted. Participants are chosen based on their academic preparation, maturity, and potential to adapt well in a different culture. Attempts are made to select participants from all areas of the U.S. as well, and their experience must match with the research opportunities available at the Chinese universities. The participants come from such diverse majors as civil and environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, computer engineering and science, mathematics, physics, chemistry, oceanography, and meteorology.

After a brief orientation at Clarkson, students fly to China where they spend 10 weeks. A few days at the beginning and end of their stay are spent on culture tours, but the majority of their time is dedicated to research activities under the guidance of Chinese faculty mentors. Half of the group works at Dalian University of Technology; the other half is based at Ocean University of Qingdao. 

The combination of research experience and cultural exchange is what draws the students. Some have a desire to link knowledge of China with their professional aspirations, others are simply excited at the prospect of experiencing a different culture.

Brian Vines, a civil engineering major from Auburn University, returned to China in order to have an impact. “I went to China earlier on a cultural exchange and was shocked by the need for civil engineering expertise – the dirty rivers, the inadequate infrastructure. When my flight was leaving Shanghai, I decided that I wanted to come back to China, but I wanted to come back and contribute as an engineer.”

Kiran Goldman, a biology and environmental engineering major at Cornell University, studied the impact of sewage on intertidal species of algae. For her, the research experience was a natural progression of her international and scientific interests; Kiran is studying Chinese as well as engineering at Cornell.

James Duvall, a mechanical engineering major from the University of Portland, said the experience made him even more aware of the need for engineers to communicate effectively. “There’s a skill to communicating technical information clearly, and this becomes even more challenging when dealing with a language barrier. I learned that I had to be very clear about what I said; I had to think through what I wanted to say.”

Erin Elder, majoring in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, said the experience inspired her. “It’s a great group of students. It raises your standards for yourself. I feel more certain now about my decision to go to graduate school.”

Seth Kassels, a physics major at Colorado College, commented on the advantage of having access to the research facilities at Dalian University of Technology: “Using the 70-meter wave flume was just phenomenal.” Seth is publishing a joint paper based his summer research with his mentor.

The relationship between the two Chinese universities and Clarkson is now stronger as well. Ocean University of Qingdao is planning to send three undergraduate students next year to Clarkson for several months to conduct research.

Another group of 15 undergraduates will be selected next spring for summer 2002 research in Dalian and Qingdao.

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Annie Harrison, Director of Media Relations, at 315-268-6764 or]

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